WE can't afford to be cynical about either the candidates or the process. Critical of apparent shortcomings, yes. But to be cynical - to deny the sincerity of motive of those performing in public life, to disparage the system we have - is to ignore the considerable effort given to making the system work.
An election is a creative human drama. It may be charged otherwise: that elections are manipulated by professional campaign managers, pollsters, money-giving special interests, and ego-serving candidates. The negative view is that the citizen is presented with a manipulated choice.
Voters must keep their wits. When George Bush charged Michael Dukakis with responsibility for the Boston Harbor mess in the 1988 campaign, Mr. Bush might have been asked whether he really thought there was only Democratic sludge on the harbor bottom. No Republican sludge? Mr. Dukakis allowed himself to be put on the defensive. His campaign collapsed in upon itself in its Boston headquarters. It did not reach out to other sources of strength among Democrats nationally. The same with Dukakis's decision to ride in the turret of a tank, wearing a silly helmet: The Republicans leaped on that image to ridicule the Democrats' attempt to look tough on defense.
A Reagan strength in 1980 was his capacity to absorb the opposing Bush forces into his own campaign; the Bush team not only helped him win the election but became the nucleus for running the White House, which it eventually inherited for the GOP. Remember how pathetically Jimmy Carter chased Ted Kennedy around the podium for the arms-raised victory salute?
Is there really a better set of candidates out there? What if these are the best we have? FDR/Dewey, Nixon/Kennedy, Johnson/ Goldwater, Ford/Carter - in every contest voters thought at least one of the opponents unworthy.
Candidate selection has moved from power-brokering at the party conventions to the primary process. An Eisenhower may not have wanted to run this way. But again, this is the system we have. Members of the Senate and House, governors, may want more of a say at the conventions. But they too have been drifting toward self-standing, not party-centered, careers. The most cohesive force for the Democrats in Washington may be the Republicans' grip on the White House. We have a more entrepreneurial political sys tem, particularly among the Democrats, while the Republicans take a more corporate approach at the national level.
Voters, it is said, get the candidates they deserve. Who, really, can defend that view?
Polls, it is argued, invite politicians to say what the public wants to hear. Actually, the universal availability of survey research today is a restraint on political exaggeration.
For a people said to have little sense of history, Americans have a remarkably stable political structure. Few candidates or officeholders may be above lampooning, but the responsibilities of governing compel many to rise to the challenge. Policies attempted, like wage and price controls in times of inflation, or excessive tax cuts, eventually prove their worth or lack thereof.
It's tough to govern. Who really knows what to do with the health-care system? Who perceives the long-term effects of company restructuring and layoffs? Aim is amiss on trade: To attack Japan for its gains in auto manufacture, as if this were the cause of Detroit's problems, is to ignore the workings of that industry. The disappearance of Packard, Studebaker reflect Detroit's survival-of-the-fittest past. Detroit had long led the boom-and-bust cycles of the economy; its swings are arguably less severe no w that the manufacturing sector is less dominant. Not unlike Japan, Detroit is an international auto force; witness GM's ownership of Opel and Saab in Europe. Detroit must shape itself up for the '90s.
Money: A campaign is a business venture. We may wish it otherwise, but at least it is the same for every candidate.
Professional help: Why should candidates repeat their predecessors' mistakes?
The campaign process, like the issues of governance, is evolving. Let's wish it well.